On a windy Tuesday afternoon at the Louisville Sportsman’s Club in Ohio, U.S. Representative John Boccieri smoothly shot down a fluorescent orange target soaring across the long, grass-covered firing range.
It’s trapshooting like that, backed by a consistent record of support for gun rights, that won Boccieri the endorsement of the National Rifle Association two years after he became the first Democrat in 60 years to represent the Canton-based 16th congressional district in northeastern Ohio.
Still, the Air Force veteran and former professional baseball player has become a target himself, as voters frustrated with the slow pace of economic recovery prepare to oust scores of House Democrats in tomorrow’s midterm elections.
“I’m angry too,” Boccieri said as shots reverberated across the cow and horse pastures surrounding the club. “We haven’t recovered fast enough, but how angry are you going to be if we put the folks in charge that got us into this mess?”
Boccieri’s anger -- and a resume that includes service in two wars and opposition to abortion that plays well in the district -- may not be enough to save the 41-year-old lawmaker from getting swept away in a Republican wave. In Ohio, Democrats may lose five House races, a Senate contest and the gubernatorial election. What happens here will reflect broader trends: Nationally, Democrats are expected by analysts to lose control of the House of Representatives.
More Than Most
Ohio, long a center of heavy industry, has suffered more than most states. It has lost 400,000 manufacturing jobs over the last decade, 40 percent of the factory workforce, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The jobless rate was 10 percent in September, compared with a national average of 9.6 percent, the data shows. Home foreclosures in the Canton area increased by 4 percent in the third quarter of 2010 from the previous quarter, according to Irving, California-based RealtyTrac Inc.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Thomas Bennett, director of the Department of Job and Family Services in rural Wyandot County. “Sometimes things get so bad someone has to come up with an answer, but no one has.”
Polls show that Ohio residents, like voters across the U.S., have soured on the Obama White House, saying they don’t see the health-care legislation, stimulus bill, and government bailout of banks and automakers boosting the economy.
The state’s congressional Democrats are likely to pay for the erosion of support. The Cook Political Report rates the races of Representatives Boccieri, who’s running against Republican Jim Renacci; Zack Space; and Charlie Wilson as toss- ups. Those of Representatives Mary Jo Kilroy and Steve Driehaus are viewed as likely to flip to Republican control.
‘Very Close Race’
Republican Rob Portman, the top international trade official under former President George W. Bush, is 15 points ahead of Democrat Lee Fisher in the Senate race, according to the latest poll by CNN and Time Magazine. And Democratic Governor Ted Strickland is running about even with Republican challenger John Kasich.
“This is going to be a very close race,” Strickland said in an Oct. 27 interview. “It will be decided by 1 to 3 points.”
The two parties are trying not only to win this year but to lay the groundwork for a 2012 presidential victory. The state has voted for the winner in the last 12 U.S. presidential elections, and its 20 electoral votes are seen as key.
“We get rolling here and we’ll have a big say in who will be the next president,” Kasich told a Republican crowd at a pork barbecue picnic in rural Gallipolis on Oct. 16.
Ohio’s importance is reflected in who has visited the state in recent weeks. President Barack Obama made his 12th trip yesterday, along with Vice President Joseph Biden.
Last week, former President Bill Clinton and House Republican leader John Boehner relocated dueling political rallies after Canton officials worried that the events would snarl traffic and pose a security risk. Clinton campaigned again for Strickland and Boccieri on Oct. 30.
If Ohio reflects the mood of the country, Boccieri’s Stark County is the state’s barometer.
The county, home of the Pro-Football Hall of Fame, hulking factories and family farms, backed Obama in the presidential campaign. The enthusiasm Obama generated among Democrats helped Boccieri win that year, gaining a seat that Republican Ralph Regula had held since 1973, before retiring.
Now, Boccieri is battling for his political survival against millionaire businessman Renacci, from a campaign office in downtown Canton surrounded by boarded-up homes and a shuttered General Motors dealership.
Boccieri grew up in northeast Ohio and spent eight years in the Ohio legislature, his term interrupted by tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those credentials, plus an “A” rating from the NRA, an anti-abortion stance, and a seat on the House Agriculture Committee helped him win support from the district’s socially conservative, rural Democrats.
“John Boccieri has probably got the best resume of anyone in Congress,” said Roger Strickland, who has campaigned at pro- gun events across the state for the governor, his brother. “If the people of this district don’t put him back in Congress they’ve got to open up a lot of mental hospitals around here.”
Yet Boccieri’s support for Obama’s health-care, economic stimulus, and cap-and-trade initiatives is hurting him with many of those voters.
‘Hoodwinked by Pelosi’
After opposing the health-care overhaul in November 2009, Boccieri switched to support the legislation the following March, saying he’d rather pass an imperfect bill than do nothing.
“He was hoodwinked by Pelosi and her gang,” said Jack Finefrock, 59, a real estate investor who’s voting for Renacci. “The Democratic left has ruined the party.”
Decisions by Canton-based steel-bearings maker Timken Co. to hire back 500 workers and by Rolls Royce Group Plc to expand a fuel-cell research facility in the district aren’t enough to convince voters the economy is on the mend. Unemployment in the Canton metropolitan area rose to 11.5 percent this July from 6 percent in December 2007, the month the recession began.
“The perception is things got worse not better over the last two years,” said Joe Hoagland, 55, president of local 1123 of the United Steelworkers union, leaning against the wall of the single-story Laborers International Union building in Canton, a city of about 80,000 people.
Winning With Anxiety
Renacci, 51, said he believes that economic anxiety will catapult him to victory.
“The people of this district have to make a decision: Are they happy with the direction we’re going?” he said, standing in the high-ceilinged concrete lobby of the Canton cultural center after a Republican rally.
Renacci, who built a fortune from investments in nursing homes, real estate, auto dealerships and a football team, promises to work to repeal the health-care bill, halt remaining stimulus spending, and cut “smaller items” in the budget to lower the federal deficit. He opposed the government rescue of automakers, even as his Chevrolet dealership profited from the “Cash for Clunkers” program.
Those positions won him an endorsement from former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who called him a “common- sense local leader.”
Still, for many Stark County voters surrounded by shuttered stores and half-empty factories, the promises they hear from both parties sound hollow.
“I remember when Canton was over 100,000” in population, says Darrell Miller, 61, a truck driver who’s been out of work for three years. “Those days are long gone and they’re not coming back.”
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